CBP locks up Italian visitor for 10 days without charge

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Nina Bernstein at the New York Times brings us another story of government immigration overreach.

He was a carefree Italian with a recent law degree from a Roman university. She was "a totally Virginia girl," as she puts it, raised across the road from George Washington's home. Their romance, sparked by a 2006 meeting in a supermarket in Rome, soon brought the Italian, Domenico Salerno, on frequent visits to Alexandria, Va., where he was welcomed like a favorite son by the parents and neighbors of his girlfriend, Caitlin Cooper.

But on April 29, when Mr. Salerno, 35, presented his passport at Washington Dulles International Airport, a Customs and Border Protection agent refused to let him into the United States. And after hours of questioning, agents would not let him travel back to Rome, either; over his protests in fractured English, he said, they insisted that he had expressed a fear of returning to Italy and had asked for asylum.

Ms. Cooper, 23, who had promised to show her boyfriend another side of her country on this visit -- meaning Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon -- eventually learned that he had been sent in shackles to a rural Virginia jail. And there he remained for more than 10 days, locked up without charges or legal recourse while Ms. Cooper, her parents and their well-connected neighbors tried everything to get him out.

Mr. Salerno's case may be extreme, but it underscores the real but little-known dangers that many travelers from Europe and other first-world nations face when they arrive in the United States -- problems that can startle Americans as much as their foreign visitors.

Often the reasons for rejection or detention are a reflection of our comically restrictive and nonsensical entry laws. 

Ms. Cooper, a copy editor for an educational publication, said she was in the airport lobby when an agent called to ask about Mr. Salerno's income and why he visited so often.

Many people overlook the national security risks posed by wealthy tourists who travel here frequently.  How many double cappuccinos and Hugo Boss suits would Salerno have bought on this weak dollar?  Those luxury products belong in the hands of wealthy Americans, dammit.  What if he had penetrated our border defenses and made it all the way to Arizona?  I shudder to think of the turquoise roadside jewelry and Navajo knickknacks he might have laid his hands on, or the sweeping craggy vistas his gaze might have probed.  Thank god he was stopped in time. 

"The border patrol officer said to my face that Domenico said he would be killed if he went back to Italy," she recalled, voicing incredulity that, in his halting English, he could express such a thought. "Also, who on earth would ever seek asylum from Italy?"

I guess there are a few bugs in the asylum screening process to be worked out.  

Ten days after he landed in Washington, Mr. Salerno was still incarcerated, despite efforts by Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, and two former immigration prosecutors hired by the Coopers.

"He's just really scared," Ms. Cooper said in an interview last Thursday. "He asked me if Virginia has the death penalty."

Luis Paoli, a lawyer hired by the Coopers, said there was no limit on detention while waiting for an asylum interview. But even after officials agreed the asylum issue had been a mistake, Mr. Salerno was not released.

"Now an innocent European, who has never broken any laws, committed any crimes, or overstayed his visa, is being held in a county jail," Ms. Cooper wrote in an e-mail message to The New York Times last Wednesday, prompting a reporter's inquiries.

Less than 24 hours later, immigration officials intervened and arranged to deliver Mr. Salerno to Dulles, where last Friday he flew to Rome. Ms. Cooper, who said she was now considering moving to Italy, was by his side.

Even this well-connected, white European, who enlisted the help of an influential Senator was stuck in a legal black hole for 10 days, and would be there still if the New York Times hadn't started calling. 

Just think about the thousands of nonwhite, non-European immigrants without well-connected relatives who fall into this black hole.  Some such immigrants are detained for years (one client of mine was previously detained for three years), and no one ever knows.  Or if they do know, it doesn't raise too many eyebrows:

"We have a lot of government people here and lobbyists and lawyers and very educated, very savvy Washingtonians," said Jim Cooper, Ms. Cooper's father, a businessman, describing the reaction in his neighborhood, the Wessynton subdivision of Alexandria. "They were pretty shocked that the government could do this sort of thing, because it doesn't happen that often, except to people you never hear about, like Haitians and Guatemalans."

I guess we're ok locking up low-income Haitian or Guatemalan migrants for months or years, or at least we've come to expect it.  Wealthy Italians, though--that is shocking.

Anyway, no one deserves to be locked up for simply trying to come into this country for benign purposes.  Once upon a time, Americans thought of liberty as a fundamental constitutional principle.  DHS is out of control at this point, unaccountable to Congress or the public. 

Mr. Salerno was still shaken. "In America," he said, "there are so many good people and beautiful people that don't deserve to be showing these terrible things to the world."

I couldn't say it better.


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6 Comments

janna said:

“They were pretty shocked that the government could do this sort of thing, because it doesn’t happen that often, except to people you never hear about, like Haitians and Guatemalans.”
That quote just about made me cry. Some of the people I care most about in this world are Guatemalan. Why should we feel any less outrage when the victims are a different color than us, or speak a different language?
This is beyond ridiculous. DHS is indeed completely out of control.

Jim Cooper said:

Dear Janna,

I'm so happy someone interpreted this somewhat mangled quote the way it was intended. I agree with you fully. It's awful and unacceptable when it happens to anyone, regardless of their national origin. It's true though that many more non-G9 nationals such as Haitians and Guatemalans suffer this mistreatment than "first world" (I don't really like that term) residents It's also true that it doesn't get adequate coverage in the mainstream press, although it has with some stories this past weekend in the Washington Post. Domenico met many of them while he was at the jail. Also, Domenico is dark skinned and many who don' know him think he is of Latin American or Middle Eastern origin (he is 100% Calabrian). Perhaps this raised the CBP officer's misplaced suspicions.

Jim Cooper - Caitlin's dad

yave begnet said:

Thank you, Jim, for stopping by. I am glad Domenico's story is getting the attention it deserves. I think his experience may be valuable to a lot of people by helping to raise consciousness that this sort of thing can happen to anyone, even to certain U.S. citizens disfavored by DHS. Internment of Japanese-Americans doesn't seem so long ago or far away when we look at the story of Jose Padilla or Americans of South Asian descent being harassed at airports or black Americans getting pulled aside by CBP on their way back from Puerto Rico. Best wishes to Domenico and your family.

Mook said:

So many unanswered questions from the article. Even more questions raised by Mr. Cooper's post here (assuming he is whom he says he is), attributing racist motivations to the CPB.

Let's start with the very basics. Italy is a visa waiver country. That means that Italians can travel here on an Italian passport without visa. So then, why exactly was Mr. Salerno denied entry into the US? This is the most basic element of this story, yet the NYT does not address it.

Also, why was Salerno moved to CPB secondary investigation? That's not standard procedure, even for "dark skinned" immigrants, unless they have a criminal background or unless they claim asylum. It may have been a case of mistaken identity too, but the NYT doesn't give us anything on that either.

Which brings up another huge hole in the story - requests for asylum are made on tape with witnesses. The article says the CPB claims Salerno asked for asylum but Salerno denies this. We have a clear discrepency in claims here. So why didn't the NYT ask to see the asylum evidence? They don't even speak to that point.

Now why might a nice young man like Salerno claim asylum? Well imagine Mr. Salerno arriving into the country to meet his girlfriend, a girl from a wealthy Washington DC family, and then be denied entry into the US for a very embarrassing, yet legitimate reason. A person in that situation might make up any tall tale to avoid being sent back, and if he suggested that he might be in danger if he's sent home, that would trigger a mandatory asylum investigation. Just sayin'

So many basic questions unasked and unanswered. But the gullible believe it all without questioning, because it fits their narrative of racist, fascist AmeriKKKa

janna said:

Mr. Cooper, my heart goes out to you and your family. I'm so sorry and embarrassed about what happened to Domenico, in this country of which I so want to be proud. I hope the good that comes from that frustrating situation is the light it sheds on the plight of others like him. Bless you and Caitlin for standing by him through it all.

pete said:

I really love one-sided stories such as these. As a CBP officer I can help clarify this situation. The visitor in question and all visitors should know that entry into the US has conditions. Mainly that u arent coming here to work. That u dont spend too much time here with in a certain time frame. After all you are suppossedly employed back where you come from and only come here as an occaisional tourist. We give special visas for those who need to be here often and only for legitimate purposes. In Adverse actions such as the one described translators are used if there are language problems. Sometimes passengers declare asylum because they think they will be free to go after the statement is taken. Once u declare political asylum even if u are from a lilly-white country we are not allowed to give u a do over once u find that u have outsmarted yourself. Lawbreakers often do.

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